TO KEEP ONE’S TREASURE PROTECTED
Within the lump of coal the flame lies hidden,
within its darkness hides the diamond’s glory
all unseen from without, it must be imagined –
the fire that heats the house, the wedding ring
sparkling with future promise. But what would be
the coal’s choice if coal could be said to choose?
All day I’ve been trying to imagine the ones
who withhold themselves – arms folded across chests,
or hands buried deep in their pockets. The ones
who remain a few steps back from life, who feel
possessed of a treasure which they didn’t wish
to offer the world, as if they wore their smiles
on the insides of their faces. Is this an attempt
to save themselves for the truly important moment?
Or could it suggest the world isn’t good enough?
Or are they trying to be complete in themselves –
both lover and loved, consumer and consumed,
as if one could be complete without the world?
What does it mean never to offer, not necessarily
to be selfish but never generous as if afraid
to spill a valuable part of the self, something
not seen as golden until it is gone, as if Self
were a red bird that one squeezes in the hands
thwarting its wish to fly off into the pine trees?
Those withholders in the doorway, those lumps
of coal who flee the fire: to see a man slip
to the sidewalk without going to help, to know
a song and not sing it, to watch the hungry
get hungrier, the defeated continue their steady
collapse. Our bodies are coinage. Spend it. Fling
the coins upward, hear them jangle on the street.
What happens to the souls of the miserly?
A man creeps down to his basement at midnight,
digs a hole, unearths a box, unfastens a lock.
Inside, a little dust, a spider, two lumps of coal.
A sigh – isn’t it like a scream turned inward?
- Stephen Dobyns
Imagine someone you respect said that this poem was “you”. How would you interpret that?
Is it an insult? Who is the “person” in the poem this “you” is in place of? The speaker? Or one of “the ones who withhold themselves”?
I ask this because someone said that this poem was me.
Immediately, it bothered me. I assumed the person who said that this poem is “Teri”, saw me not as the speaker – the one that encourages people to “spend” themselves – but rather as one of those who believes “the world isn’t good enough”, or who”[feels] possessed of a treasure which they don’t wish to offer the world”, and as one “not necessarily…selfish, but never generous.”
Because I interpret the tone of the poem as the speaker passing judgment of “those” people, I’ll admit it hurt my feelings. This poem is telling me to “spend” my “treasure”, so does this mean I am supposed to be more outgoing? Am I not giving enough of myself? Am I miserly and arrogant and detached and cold? “AS IF one could be complete without the world”. What of those people who feel pretty complete with themselves? Is there something wrong with them?
It’s funny, you know. Someone said this poem was me, and I scoured the poem searching for some hidden truth about myself, rather than searching deeply within myself for some hidden truth about myself. They say that the best judge of yourself is you, but isn’t that a type of tunnel vision? All of these questions certainly got me thinking – how much should I weigh external feedback about my identity?
Does another person’s interpretation of me matter?